Monday, March 26, 2012

Hapsburg Belgium

The Hapsburg Imperial Family reigned over Belgium for a long time, Belgium did very well most of the time when the Hapsburgs were in charge, Belgium went through her "Golden Age" during the Hapsburg rule. But some people have a bias against the Hapsburgs because of what happened in 1789 and everything related to that period. But without the Hapsburg leadership there would possibly be no Belgium at all. When the United Provinces (that became The Netherlands) revolted from the Spanish Hapsburgs and the Low Countries became the battlefield for the contest between the Catholic and Protestant powers it was the Hapsburgs who made sure that Belgium was retained as a Catholic country, unique and different and did not become a part of the Dutch Republic. I think that if that happened, over the following era Belgium would have been absorbed to become indistinguishable from The Netherlands, in culture, politics and religion.

The spread of the revolution that resulted in the United States of Belgium was because of two causes. There were the republicans who supported the revolutionary ideas of France and wanted to break away from Austria to follow their example but there were also those traditional Catholics who were upset by the policies of the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II who wanted to bring the Church under closer state control. But, if not for the years of Hapsburg rule both of these very different factions who came together in opposition to the Hapsburgs might have been disappointed, each in a different way. If not for the Hapsburgs Belgium might have not been Catholic at all in the 18th Century but might have become Protestant along with the Dutch as part of the United Provinces. The revolutionaries would not, probably, have been happy with this also since the House of Orange played such a dominant part in the Dutch Republic and even there, already there existed two factions; the republicans and the Orange party that supported becoming a stronger or more strongly united Dutch monarchy. At the same time in The Netherlands there was, therefore, already much division and fighting among themselves between those who wanted to strengthen the House of Orange and those who wanted to get rid of them to become a revolutionary republic. Because of the Hapsburgs, Belgium was a unique place that was spared the same thing and something revolutionaries and Catholics would not have liked.

We can also see what happened in the years when the Hapsburg had been pushed out and Belgium was absorbed by the French Empire of Napoleon. This also caused painful divisions between those who wanted independence and those who wanted to be part of France. I do not think there were many that were still loyal to Austria by that time but probably there were at least a few also. But partly because of 1789 I do not think Belgium was going to be subject to another country for long. Obviously the country did not stay for long united with The Netherlands but even if Belgium had remained a Hapsburg dominion as the Austrian Netherlands, I do not think that would have lasted either because Belgium was too far from Austria and there was the growing power of Germany coming between the two. Perhaps Belgium would have still become an independent kingdom but with a Hapsburg monarch as some of the leaders of the Revolution of 1830 even favored who wanted to give the throne to Archduke Karl. Of course, I am happy with how history unfolded for Belgium, becoming independent with the monarchy of the Coburgs. But we are fortunate I think because the House of Orange and the House of Hapsburg both have been good dynasties that have always tried to do the best for their people.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Belgian Golden Age Couple

If you had to name a “golden age” for Belgium, before the independence of the modern kingdom, a definite answer would be the period when Belgium, or as it was called then, the Spanish Netherlands, was under the guidance of Infanta Isabella of Spain and Archduke Albert of Austria. It started in 1598 when, before his death later that year, King Philip II of Spain put the Netherlands, or all the Low Countries as they were at the time, in the hands of his daughter Isabella and her husband Albert of Austria, who had previously been a Cardinal in the Church. They were very good rulers and the southern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands, which is Belgium today, went through a period of great peace, prosperity, a rebirth of great learning and a spiritual rejuvenation and also a great artistic renaissance. Spain was still contesting the rule of the northern provinces with the Dutch independence faction, most of whom were Protestants, and so the restoration of Belgium became part of what is called the Counter- or Catholic Reformation. Isabella and Albert were partly responsible for the beginnings of a distinct Belgian identity at this time as they emphasized the unique nature of the solidly Catholic southern provinces in contrast to the rebellious Protestant provinces in the north.

They championed some of the greatest Flemish artists and architects in history to help with this, creating magnificent buildings and beautiful artworks to inspire pride and patriotic devotion as well as a stronger faith in the Belgian people. Their court in Brussels became one of the greatest centers of art, learning, diplomacy and statecraft in all of Europe. They greatly increased the positive image of the House of Hapsburg in Belgium and ensured that the anti-Spanish hostility of the north never took root in the south, with Brussels becoming a very cosmopolitan city with experts from various fields of endeavor from all over the continent. The couple were a great success but unfortunately had much pain in their private life as all three of their children died when they were still very small. No one can say why this happened but Princess Isabella was 33-years-old when she married the Archduke which at that time was considered a little bit older than the ideal age for a woman to marry and have children. Everyone admired them and even the enemies of Spain in other countries respected them and that is partly why the Treaty of London and the Twelve Years Truce were achieved, because of the close involvement of Archduke Albert in negotiating them.

Archduke Albert was also adept as a military commander. When he first arrived in Belgium the Spanish forces were being pressed by all the Protestant powers of northern Europe, fighting French troops, English troops, Dutch troops and German troops. He turned this around though and secured Belgium for the Hapsburgs and put the Protestant armies on the defensive, even taking some of their most crucial strongholds. This security made the later embellishments of the country possible because what fighting did continue was periodic and kept at or beyond the borders of the country. He made peace after Maurice of Nassau began leading the Dutch to new victories, but because of what Albert had already gained he had some room to bargain and negotiate so that he was still able to secure Belgium for his side. He also did try to make peace with the United Provinces and the Queen of England first and only went to war when they refused his offers. He was not harsh and realized that the United Provinces would never be re-taken by Spain so he decided to concentrate on defending Belgium and ensuring the rebellion did not spread. Later he was able to make peace with almost everyone and make Belgium the cultural center of Europe. He secured the country for the Catholic Church and he did it by promoting a positive image of Catholicism instead of having Protestants executed. Albert and Isabella also enacted many positive changes, making the legal system more just, improving the economy and helped establish many new convents and monasteries. We really owe a great deal to this Hapsburg ‘power couple’. They were some of the best.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part VI, Albert II

Finally we come to our King today, Albert II, who is often made light of by the people who make a profession of mockery but who is held in high regard by those in the government and society who actually work with him on a regular basis and this is significant to know. Unlike most of the kings before him, his influence on policy is very restricted and it seems that the attitude of the people today in general is less respectful toward the monarchy than in the past and this hurts not only the reputation of the King but also the cohesion of the country. But the King has been probably the most diligent and involved monarch of all the kings and queens today. This is because he has to deal with issues most other monarchs do not have to deal with and he has shown, even if he is not always appreciated for it, just how central and important the monarchy is for Belgium and in this way he has been very dutiful in keeping to his oath to defend the unity and integrity national of Belgium. He has not always been free from error but he has persisted in doing everything in his power to keep the country together, make peace between the disputing parties and keep a positive image for the country to the world. The King has shown he is always ‘on call’ and has had to step in during emergencies many times as the only person in the government everyone recognizes as being above partisanship.

The King has been very careful to avoid any hint of favoritism and a willingness to work with anyone except for those who have destructive intentions towards the kingdom. He has worked constantly promote the Belgian economy and friendly relations with countries all over the world. All of this he has done with the smile and laugh everyone recognizes. In times of tragedy he is the first to offer comfort to those involved, he has a tradition of always giving generously to those who write to him asking for his help and when hard financial times hit the government he set the example by willingly giving up any increase in his own allowance. Everyone who knows him has attested to his friendly nature, charming personality, good humor and humble familiarity. He is known as a very human humanitarian. There are other monarchs, I know, who are possibly more celebrated in the media but myself I cannot imagine most of these doing what our King has had to do on several occasions, really being the key mediator in political disputes over the forming of a government. In most countries the monarch has no part in this at all, even if there are negotiations, they are done and the king or queen is just informed after the fact. In Belgium, without the King, maybe nothing would be done at all. For being so diligent in his duty, devoted to his country and still keeping a laugh, I think Albert II is a great King.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part V, Baudouin

The memory of King Baudouin is still very respected in Belgium, I think, but also he has had his critics also. If he made some missteps, these were not important when compared to the tremendous burdens he had to deal with during his reign on the throne, coming in after the abdication of his father, when the country was feared to be on the edge of civil war, reuniting the public, dealing the de-colonization, federalism and international tensions and also a very changing society from the traditional values of the old days. Any accusations of personal immorality on his part are so ridiculous, no one fortunately believes them. It is not worth even mentioning because everyone knowing the King could see his very strong traditional values and religious principles. Belgium has had six kings, half were not always perfectly virtuous in their private lives but half were absolutely spotless and Baudouin was one of those without question. Most of the criticism directed toward King Baudouin I have seen usually involves the Congo belge and the delicate circumstances of the time of independence for that country.

King Baudouin was actually very popular in the Congo and was welcomed with great love and affection when he visited before independence. At the handover of this, however, he was criticized for his speech, a speech which was entirely truthful and most importantly which tried to put the situation of the two countries in the best terms to go forward in peaceful cooperation as friends. He is not to blame that Premier Lumumba took the opportunity to respond by arousing racial hatred and national antagonism toward Belgium which resulted in waves of attacks, rapes and murders against Belgians in the Congo which forces some minor intervention. None of this was the fault of King Baudouin who always and in every instance tried to arrange peaceful, friendly relations between the countries. King Baudouin was very well known for his outspoken opposition to racism, nationalist bigotry and xenophobia. In Belgium was no different and while he would be friends with all political parties he would never meet with the racists or parties that promoted nationalist bigotry. He also campaigned against sexual exploitation around the world and against poverty that degraded the human condition. Even though values were changing, the people still respected King Baudouin for his firm principles, his simplicity and sincerity. He did good in bringing people back together from the time he first came to the throne. However, it was also during his reign that federalism became the new rule and this would, ultimately, as we see now, push people apart again and turn Belgium into a country of divided camps. During his reign this was not always apparent though because King Baudouin was so respected by everyone, so admired by the people, he truly united everyone. He was a great king.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part IV, Leopold III

King Leopold III may be the most unjustly criticized of all our kings and yet there was no one who did more to demonstrate that his selfless devotion to his people than King Leopold III. He is most often attacked because of his actions during World War II when the facts show that his every action was influenced by his love for his country and dedication to his people. King Leopold III was a veteran of the First World War when he fought for his country while still in his teens, he had toured the country and the Belgian Congo to see the issues his people faced so he could find ways to correct them, he was devoted to unifying his people and to hopefully keep Belgium out of World War II. That was not possible though since the Germans invaded anyway and King Leopold III did his duty and took command of the army to fight for Belgian independence. He led to the troops in a desperate struggle across the country for eighteen days with little support from the other powers who really let the Belgians sacrifice themselves to buy time for their own armies to retreat. Finally, cut off, outnumbered and outmatched, King Leopold III did the responsible thing and surrendered his army so they would not be needlessly slaughtered. It is disgusting that other Allied leaders blamed him for not fighting hard enough when it was his struggle that gave them the time to save their own armies.

It is also criticized today that Leopold III remained with his troops and became a prisoner, staying in Belgium, rather than fleeing to London to join the Belgian government-in-exile which directed the Free Belgian résistance. This is a charge ridiculous to make because, as a soldier, he would not abandon his brave men to save himself. King Christian X of Denmark did not leave his country and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands did not want to either but had to be, basically, tricked into leaving by her own attendants. Leopold III knew it was his duty to stay in Belgium to endure the occupation with his people and not abandon them so he could try to shield them from the worst excesses of the Nazi conquerors. The politicians invented the lie that this somehow made Leopold III a collaborator because they had fought with him from the very beginning because the King was always a problem for them because he put the interests of Belgium as a whole first whereas the politicians always put themselves or their narrow interest group before the national good. During the occupation the fact is that Leopold III refused to collaborate with the Germans, refused to carry out their wishes and remained under house arrest as a prisoner of war. His only meeting with Hitler was an effort by King Leopold III to preserve the unity and independence of Belgium which the actual Nazi collaborators wanted to divide and subordinate to the Netherlands or Germany.

The Nazis forced the King and his family out of the country and put them in prison until they were liberated by American forces at the end of the war. However, by that time, the government-in-exile had returned and they were still being spiteful and refused to let the King return so he had to go to Switzerland. The people had always loved the King more than his ministers but anti-monarchy agitation was also being instigated by Marxist revolutionaries and those who wanted to divide and destroy the country. Because of the unrest, the issue was put to a referendum, asking if the King should come back or not. The result was a clear majority in favor of Leopold III returning but the enemies of the monarchy refused to accept the result and threatened violence, even civil war, if they did not get their way. Although it was very painful, King Leopold III decided he could not continue as king if it would risk the lives of his people so even though he won the vote he abdicated his throne to spare his country further suffering, leaving it to his son Baudouin to heal the wounds of Belgium. Leopold III was clearly a devoted patriot who always put his country and his people first. He was really a great king.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part III, Albert I

Thankfully, King Albert I is one of the most widely respected Belgian kings of history. He was greatly admired in his own time and became especially famous all over the world because of his courage and leadership in the Great War, the first most terrible crisis faced by the Kingdom of Belgium. But, like any great man, there were still lesser men who tried to tarnish his reputation with absurd and slander him with ridiculous accusations. Anyone should have known this was ridiculous if they knew anything about the life and character of Albert I. He was known always for his hard-working attitude, his religious moral character, his love for his family and his self-effacing humility. He cared deeply about his people and that included all of his people. He went to the Congo to review the condition of his African subjects and enacted policies to further improve development there. In Belgium itself he also took great care for the condition of urban workers as the manufacturing industry was growing rapidly and this led to inevitable social problems in some cases. Albert I took action from the start of his reign to ensure that workers were protected and well treated with proper working conditions and benefits.

Albert I was also a wise and far-sighted man who recognized the threat of Germany and, like Leopold II before him, tried to strengthen and modernize the Belgian military to be ready for any disaster. Often, unfortunately, the politicians were often not willing to recognize this threat and they had always been reluctant to spend money on defense and for what level of unpreparedness existed, responsibility rested with the government that controlled government funds rather than with the King. When war did come he stood up for the rights and independence of Belgium and spared himself no danger or discomfort in leading the army in defending the country. His courage was undoubted by all as he refused to leave Belgian soil and the crucial victory by the Belgian army on the Yser was crucial in saving the entire Allied line from being turned and rolled up by the Germans in the first months of the war. Maybe the most despicable criticism of Albert I is that he tried to “sell out” the Allies by trying to make peace with Germany and Austria during the war. This is the most ridiculous and outrageous criticism a person could make.

Some of this maybe was motivated by Queen Elisabeth being a German, but her patriotism was never in question, she cared for the Belgian soldiers injured in battle with her own hands and visited the front lines just like her husband. The King was naturally greatly disturbed in his heart by the suffering of his people living under German occupation and wanted to see the war end. The only fact behind this accusation was that Albert I was supportive of the effort by the Austrian Emperor Charles I to negotiate a peaceful end to the war, even if it meant giving up some of his own country. The French and British rejected this proposal and later made it public which severely endangered the Austrian Emperor because it made him suspect by the Germans. King Albert I only facilitated these talks, he never took part in them, in fact there were never formal talks at all really, he only helped to bring the Austrian case to Britain and France who immediately rejected it. Nothing he did or even considered doing would have cost the Allies anything, all they might have lost were some of the gains they made later, after the war, in carving up the German colonies and Ottoman Empire and dividing the territories between Britain and France. When the effort failed, Albert I remained just as committed to the war effort as ever and later led the Flanders Army Group to the final victory. Unlike some others however he was not vindictive toward his defeated enemies. In war and peace he was a true leader, courageous, moral, humble and compassionate. A great king.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part II, Leopold II

King Leopold II is probably the most criticized of all the Belgian kings. If he is not it is only because people think no longer it is necessary to criticize him more because he already has been portrayed as the worst person ever possible. Any search for information about him on the internet will show only a repetitive list of the same horrendous accusations, never with any real evidence to support them, and all involving Africa and the Congo Free State. That this is the result of a deliberate smear-campaign is obvious because what can be said about the King that is negative, in his own life and interactions with others, is never mentioned only about his alleged crimes of villainy in Africa even though he never harmed a single African and never even visited Africa. Because this has obviously been a campaign so widespread and successful I will not try to refute everything here but just highlight the important facts about King Leopold II and why he was not a villain but a really great and far seeing king like the others. His faults he had as a man but not as king.

Like his father, King Leopold II was ambition for Belgium but also never over-stepped his authority as a constitutional monarch. What he did do was to take matters into his own hands in a private capacity when the government refused to act. This is why so many of the magnificent buildings that mark his reign were mostly paid for by the King out of his own pocket. In Belgium itself he showed great concern for the safety and wellbeing of his people and worked with determination to make Belgium a more prosperous, more beautiful and more secure country. All of these things he successfully accomplished too. In Africa his humanitarian aims were less successful but the expeditions he sent did wipe out the network of slave-trading and human trafficking going on in central Africa. He also brought a previously unexplored region to the attention of the world with all of the new cultures, wildlife and plants that came with that which no one had ever seen before. Also, his acquisition of the Congo was done peacefully by negotiation with local leaders. No Belgian army was ever sent to Africa to conquer and dominate native peoples.

King Leopold II established the first lights of modernity in the last dark corner of Africa. Missionaries, teachers, civil engineers and architects and business people all started to bring civilization to the Congo. The first roads, schools, hospitals and modern cities were built because of Leopold II. When word reached him that some local officials were abusing their authority and being cruel to the natives it was Leopold II who sent an official commission to investigate this and they were very honest in reporting the good things that had been done as well as the very terrible things. Because of this, these problems were corrected and the abuses ended. King Leopold II was not a cruel man and he hated to see anyone being mistreated or even having criminals put to death. In his private life he was often insensitive but Leopold II, as king, made Belgium a much more important country, much greater and more advanced and prosperous. He was also a great king for Belgium.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part I, Introduction and Leopold I

I have always thought Belgium is fortunate to have our monarchy. We have been fortunate because all of them have been great leaders in my opinion. Belgium is fortunate, not better than anyone else, I understand, because countries with longer histories and a greater number of leaders, any country, there will be some good and some not so good but Belgium has had only six kings but we are fortunate I think that in my view all have so far been good, not causing any terrible kind of crisis or been horribly cruel or so incompetent to ruin things for the country. I think all of our kings have done a pretty good job. It is unfortunate though that some people always want to blacken the reputation of anyone in a position that is high. Who can say the reason for this? Those outside the country may be motivated by envy or jealousy, perhaps bigotry and I can say without question those inside the country are often motivated these days by selfish political ambitions, to divide the people to advance themselves at the expense of the whole country. No matter the reason, I know every king has had to endure slander and unfair criticisms. In some cases this is so much ridiculous it is difficult to even take seriously, in other cases the criticism is so intense many prefer to not talk about this and let the critics win without answering back to them. I will not do that.

King Leopold I is not often criticized in a very open or direct way but I have still found that he is often unfairly portrayed. This is mostly, I think, by those who are prejudiced against the very existence of Belgium and so try to demean the first King of the Belgians, holding him in some way responsible. This is absurd because Belgium was already existing when he was invited to accept the position of King. But I have often seem him portrayed unfairly as a cold, hard figure. The image given is of a man self-centered, unfeeling and rather arrogant. This is, however, totally untrue. King Leopold I was a very brilliant man, a very brave man and well respected in his time in Belgium and internationally. He was a practical man whose demands for preliminary agreements for security and financial support was not motivated by selfishness but because he realized what difficulties a new country would face and wanted to ensure the Kingdom of Belgium would be able to go through the formative period in peace and stability. He was an ambitious man but only in the way that he desired Belgium to be a great country, as any patriot would want the same. His conditions for accepting the throne show he was not ambitious personally also the way he offered to resign his position in the revolutions of 1848 if that is what the people desired but naturally no one wanted this because he had been a good king and a wise and fair national leader. We know he was not a cold-hearted man because we can see what pain in his heart he endured the difficult times in his life. We see that in his naming his daughter Charlotte after his first wife who died tragically early and even though he naturally wanted sons he transferred his affection for his late wife to the daughter with her name and Charlotte, his only daughter, was his favorite child, obvious to everyone. His deep feelings for his second wife and mother of his children can clearly be seen by anyone in the moving tribute to her after her also untimely death. Leopold I also tried to pass laws to prevent the exploitation of women and children, which he could not do on his own as a constitutional monarch but the effort shows his compassion.